The Northern Rangelands Trust: A new model for development
Finding a way to conserve natural resources, biodiversity, and habitats is a universal challenge across the planet. So too is the need to nurture sustainable economic development to improve the lives of the Earth’s poorest rural populations. Not only is there a massive disparity of wealth and opportunity between developed and developing countries, but exactly the same divide exists within developing countries themselves, not least in Africa. The continent’s urban communities tend to be better educated. Their citizens live in societies based on well-rooted financial norms and employment opportunities. In contrast, many rural communities offer only low levels of education. The people live purely from the land, subsisting on whatever can be nurtured from the ground. Their access to a normal pecuniary society is limited or nonexistent.
The gap between these two groups is ever increasing as African urban economies grow and continue to improve educational opportunities. Rural communities, meanwhile, remain entrapped in their agro-pastoralist cultures, powerless to benefit from the new economic growth in Africa’s cities.
Development agencies have tended to focus their efforts on providing essential services such as water, schools, and housing rather than on establishing a conduit for marginalized communities to enter mainstream society. At the same time, conservationists have focused on saving habitats and species, often as a “project,” without investing in the surrounding communities or enabling them to plan and own the process.
The Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) has developed a different model, which evolved through need and built on success. The original goal of the NRT was conservation, yet the reach and benefits have resulted in a much broader approach to social development. The NRT strives to make conservation a self-sustaining proposition—financially and socially—by providing jobs for the local community through responsible tourism and complementary agro-pastoralism, making the community deeply invested in the effort’s success. In earlier conservation efforts, threatened forests and endangered species were protected by uniformed guards. In the NRT, they are protected by women and school children, who have a vested interest in a healthy environment because they benefit directly. Rather than something that has to be guarded from local communities, the environment becomes a source of sustainable economic activity for those communities.
Each local conservancy working under the umbrella of the NRT operates independently and within the existing legal system, though there may not be specific legislation pertaining to it. The NRT itself provides the local conservancy with institutional oversight based on the principles of transparency and good governance. This encourages previously divided and desperate communities to come together to capture the new commerce and investment opportunities that flow from the social and political stability provided by the conservancy.
In the NRT model, each operating entity is a not-for-profit company registered with the government and overseen by a board of directors. The directors are elected through a transparent process from given localities or villages for a three-year term of office. The chairman is elected from within the board. Subcommittees are created to focus on specific topics or challenges—for example, water management, education, health care, or commerce—and the people on the committees become trained and skilled in those areas of need. The creation of this formal body makes it easier for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government, and well-wishers to engage with the work and contribute in a structured and accountable way. This approach means that conservation and social development are no longer a project but rather part of an ongoing process, through a formalized community institution that encourages continuing investment and has a life beyond a project period.
By applying this model throughout northern Kenya, the Northern Rangelands Trust has initiated a quantum shift in conflict resolution. Previously warring communities now work hand in hand to combat the illegal killing of elephant and rhino. They work together for the development of commercial alternatives within this extremely harsh landscape. The primary commercial drivers are tourism and livestock revenues. Thanks to a credible institutional structure, tourism operators have the confidence to invest, and farmers have access to top-end markets for their livestock—opportunities that were previously unknown.
The long-term prospects for this approach are difficult to envisage, but we expect that as new economic activity strengthens these rural communities, it will catalyze opportunities for entrepreneurs, resulting in yet more economic activity. Hence this approach is essentially “a bridge to the future,” allowing market dynamics to take root in areas that were previously ungoverned—and in some cases ungovernable—with little or no hope for an improvement in the living standards of local communities.
Given that the dynamics of poverty are often similar across different countries, and even different continents, and that many environmental threats result from overuse and a lack of knowledge, we believe that the NRT model could be easily adapted and implemented across a broad spectrum of environments and societies. It’s ideally suited to communities in transition, those that are poised between historical governance structures and a desire to move into a more modern world. The structure it instills makes it easier and more cost effective for national governments to govern. In addition, because the model is founded on a rotation of leadership and formal auditing, providing an effective and localized safeguard against corruption, it gives development agencies greater confidence to invest with continuity and a long-term strategy.